I’m a reviewer. No, I don’t get paid for it (I wish), but I still think of myself as a reviewer. I take on games, series, films and books, consume them and then write down my arguments on what is good or bad about them. I sometimes receive these products directly from the developers/authors but other times I just buy them myself.
Lately I’ve been thinking of what the role of the reviewer is. Where should our focus lie, our loyalty and towards what do we strive? I’ve asked a few people I know, or things have come up in conversations that have made me consider the impact our reviews have. I don’t mean just on our readers but on the people who publish their different work for us to then mercilessly butcher.
I’ve narrowed my study to three key areas, plus a final one I feel is the most important: what do we review, for whom do we do it and how do we review? The last one is all about actually doing it, the presentation.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Over the past few years I’ve reviewed good things, phenomenal works and some that to this day I find quite appalling. As I think on the role of the reviewer and consider the time I invest on each of the products I take on for reviews, I do wonder if as a reviewer we should consume every product placed in front of us or if we should just go for the ones we like. Should we just focus on our interests and review them, completely disregarding everything else?
On the one hand, that would make my life much easier and I think that’s something most reviewers and games journalists out there will agree with. As part of this industry we sometimes have to write about titles that don’t interest us one bit, but it’s part of the job—even if that is a non-paying job. I would only accept the review codes for things that I care about, and forget about everything else. I have an eclectic taste, so it’s not like I would only have reviews for one genre or developer.
In the best scenario this would leave me with a ton of positive reviews and a few bad ones, of those games that promise me something but don’t deliver.
On the other hand, this would mean that I wouldn’t cover something that a member of my audience likes. Maybe she trusts me as a reviewer and hopes that I will cover something she likes but I don’t. I’ve done it in the past and I’m a professional, giving every game a chance to shine on its own merits, even if I don’t like the genre. It would also mean that I don’t get to discover some gaming gems, titles that I love in genres that I never thought I would enjoy. It’s happened before, more so since I started reviewing things.
On a more cynical note, this would also mean that I wouldn’t take on certain more popular titles because I don’t like those games, possibly wasting some valuable opportunities to get my name and The Mental Attic out there. It’s a rather mercenary way of looking at things, one that I don’t share, but it is worth mentioning.
While it would make life easier, I think it’s the reviewer’s job to take on any content that comes their way and give them a go and a review, even if we don’t like the genre or even the premise. There are beautiful things to discover in the world of gaming (or books, films, etc.), and we should hope to find them. If not, at least we’ll warn everyone to stay away.
Having said so, we’re not masochists. Some subject matter and content might be downright sickening to some, in which case refusal to reviewing it is perfectly acceptable. For example, I refuse to ever play Hatred, because the content and premise are I find appalling, disgusting even.
Loyalty and Trust
Video Game journalists work with developers and publishers, the relationship varying greatly between publications and individual journalists. They take our questions, our requests and give us content for our articles, hoping we make them look good and planning ahead in case we don’t. They give us review codes with the same hope and might come to regret the decision.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how much we owe the developers, how much importance should we give that relationship we have with them? Should we give them fair warning on what we thought of the game ahead of the review?
Recently I reviewed a title that I found wanting in some aspects and from the moment I got the review code, the developer prodded me constantly for feedback, mentioning how they were working on fixing bugs and balance. It was an unsubtle request for early feedback so they fix it and not have it appear on my review. I ignored it and just focused on my job, but the messages got to me and I debated whether to give them the feedback they asked for. A trusted friend told me to do so, thinking of how it would improve the game itself and help the developers. But in the end I decided against it.
My loyalty isn’t to them or any of the developers I’ve ‘worked with’. My loyalty is to my audience and myself. If my readers have to wait until I’ve finished a game and reviewed it (or an embargo) to read my thoughts, then so will the developers.
In this occasion, they didn’t agree with my review and hammered me with constant messages to argue my points and tell me the game should get a higher score. I refused to alter the score, as it had the one I felt was best for it based on my experience with the title. Even after received an insult from them, I refused to alter the score. My reviews are my personal opinions, but I am a professional and I won’t let my feelings for the developers or publishers affect the score I give their games.
There is a good chance I won’t get any more review codes from these developers, and you know what? It doesn’t matter. As Jim Sterling said during his Jimquisition, “No outlet is owed access. No journalist or pundit has a right to a press pass and no critic is obliged to receive a review copy of a game.” Even if I don’t get them, I’ll still play and review them.
Every reviewer should decide where their loyalties lie and go with them. Mine are to my audience, my core readers and my own standards, my integrity, my code of honour.
I have friendly relations with a few developers and publishers that go beyond the business. We’ve had drinks together and spoken about random things and while I certainly like and value them, when it comes down to business, they know I will review the game without consideration to that personal relationship.
Business is business, as they say and we keep it separate. At least I do.
This is a tough one, and one that each reviewer and journalist will have to answer on their own. Much like the rest of this piece, I can only tell you what I’ve learned and what my point of view is.
What should be our focus when we write our reviews: a positive outlook, as much impartiality as possible or true and brutal subjective honesty? Why do I say subjective? Because no review is ever objective, they’re opinions, and as such they’re always deeply personal. You can’t detach yourself and give an opinion. The only thing you can do is state facts and that is not a review.
So what do I mean with impartiality? Well, it’s a noncommittal review, the kind where the reviewer says they didn’t enjoy certain things or found them bad but then mention how “some people might enjoy it,” refusing to completely commit to their statements, backpedalling enough to remain on the fence. This approach gives the reviewer a chance to connect with all members of his audience, to spark conversations and act as mediator between lovers and haters of the title. But it could also backfire and put them in the position they’re trying to avoid: committing to one opinion or another.
I’ve always valued honesty. In my life, in my work and in my friends, brutal honesty is something I expect. So when it comes to my opinion, I do the same. I hold nothing back and mention every bad thing I found in the game as intensely as they deserve. If it’s amazing then I’ll say so and if it’s appalling I’ll mention that as well. I commit fully to my opinions, and ride them down the highway to hell—or the internet, as you may know it.
I respect the positive outlook, even if I don’t share it. I wish I could spin reviews and articles to focus on the positive, to diminish the bad while still mentioning it, to lift your spirits and make you want to give a game a shot even if I didn’t like it. It takes a certain kind of journalist to do that, and I’m not that one. I’m too much of a cynic, which is why the brutal honest path is the one I take. But you also know that if I do love something, then it’s truly something special to me. Read my review of Life is Strange, I love that game.
Presentation is everything
As I question the role of the reviewer I ponder on the points above, but there is one thing I’m certain about and hold as tremendously important. That is how you present a review. Anyone can give an opinion on a game being good or bad, pretty or ugly, but reviewers can’t just do that. What separates a review from a simple rant and makes it part of ‘the media’ is the arguments we present.
A reviewer’s duty is to give out clear arguments for what he thinks are the games merits and flaws. If he thinks the visuals are ugly, then he must give arguments to support that statement. A simple mention of a negative aspect is not enough. It’s the same with the good ones. Arguments are paramount in a review.
Clarity in writing is also important. Proper grammar (or pronunciation in videos) is absolutely necessary. Your arguments won’t matter if your writing is all over the place and makes it hard for your audience to understand your meaning. I’ve written my fair share of bad reviews—not in score but badly written—so it’s a continuous learning process, to know what to edit, how to make sentences flow and how to make things as clear as possible. I think I have a good enough style by now, thanks in no small part to some wonderful editors I’ve had these past couple of years. But I always double and triple check every review, making sure that I always give proper explanations to every point I make, and then ensure I wrote them properly.
Proper writing in reviews even extends to spoken reviews on video. No one will watch a thirty-minute review video, as you explain everything at length so you need to be concise without losing your message.
Even now, I do still check out other people’s reviews, especially for those titles I didn’t get codes for and haven’t had a chance to buy. It’s alarming how many times I just have to scroll down to the score and the review blurbs, as the review text itself is terrible to read.
I keep wondering about the role of the reviewer, what we’re supposed to do and what is expected of us. But perhaps I’m not the best person to answer this, as I am a reviewer and I can only defend my position. Maybe it’s you, audience and community, who can tell us what our role is. I would love to hear your opinions on this in the comments or on social media!
7 thoughts on “Journalist Reflections – The Role of the Reviewer”
A review is an opinion. It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s an opinion. There’s nothing to defend. 🙂
But we’re in an industry where those opinions can often drive deals, bonuses and business overall. People take a trusted reviewer’s words as fact instead of the purely subjective thing it is. Some can go so far as issue death threats based on opinions.
A review, an informed opinion, has a lot more power than any other opinion it seems, at least in the media.
If I get a review code to a game that I’m not interested in I pass it on to someone that is.
When I’m writing my reviews I break down everything and be as detailed as possible while trying to stay objective. I think I do a pretty good job for the most part and I make a little cash while doing it so it’s all good :].
Can you explain what you mean with staying objective? A review is an opinion after all.
By objective I mean I analyze a game while I play and don’t let my personal feelings get in the way of reviewing a game. A good example is my Total War Rome II review. .I love that game to death, but I gave it a low score because it was broken on release and filled with bugs.
Reviews are opinions obviously. I just try and keep mine neutral and for the most part it works. I won’t let my love for a game, The Witcher 3 for example, stop me from pointing out all of it’s flaws.
Maybe objective wasn’t the best word for it, but that’s how I approach my reviews.